(This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
It may seem a formidable challenge for a small business to sell overseas. But plenty of firms do it — and there are plenty of resources to help others follow suit.
According to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, small businesses in this country pre-pandemic already exported more than $500 billion of products and services, supporting more than six million jobs at home. Still, the report found, many more small businesses could be selling internationally once they learned how to navigate the thicket of foreign regulations, tariffs and customs, as well as the complexity of collecting money.
All of this presents an enormous opportunity for small businesses in the Philadelphia region looking to conduct business overseas.
For help, one of the first places to visit is the U.S. Commercial Service, which has offices in Philadelphia and New Jersey (in Newark). The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, has resources both for current and new exporters, including a “partner search,” which includes a list of up to five partners or distributors with an interest in your company’s goods or services.
Its trade specialists can also help with outreach to potentially match firms, along with doing background research and providing reports that include profile and contact information for potential customers.
The World Trade Center of Philadelphia is a nonprofit organization that assists companies in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs and in South Jersey. Part of a worldwide network of 300 such centers in more than 90 countries, the organization provides advice on trade, training, financial support and contact-building help to hundreds of small and larger firm in the region. Its work helped generate more than $104 million in export sales in 2020.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania offers its Global Access Program, designed to help small- to mid-sized Pennsylvania companies boost their exports. It is administered by the state Office of International Business Development and gives companies grants of as much as $10,000 to pay for up to three quarters of an overseas sales campaign.
Nationally, the U.S. Small Business Administration provides grants through its STEP program that helps small businesses learn to export, participate in foreign trade missions, market themselves overseas, and attend export trade shows.
The SBA also helps finance Small Business Development Centers, such as the one at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, where no-cost consultants have helped executives with market research and navigation through the complex rules of overseas trading. These centers also maintain a network of partners to help small companies connect to buyers and sellers in specific countries.
“Once a client registers with us we can analyze their business and give them access to our databases,” said Blandine Chantepie-Kari, who runs a six-member team at Temple’s Small Business Development Center. “From there, we connect them to other agencies, procurement opportunities, grant programs and offer one-on-one consulting.”
Besides the U.S. and Philadelphia Chambers of Commerce, which both provides extensive resources, there’s also the Global Philadelphia Association. This organization, founded in 2010 by international organizations in the region, works to increase interaction among the area’s diverse groups and people who engage in one form or another of international activity.
All of these resources help Philadelphia-area small businesses sell and buy products outside of the U.S. They’ll help ensure that your website is up to date and understandable to researchers abroad. They’ll help you with potential partners. They can translate.
They will make sure you’re fully aware of the duties, taxes, and tariffs you will face, critical to determining costs. They can help with insurance, letters of credit or other financing. They’ll help you attend “matchmaking events” and international trade shows where you can meet foreign suppliers and customers. And they can introduce you to agents and consultants to represent your company in different parts of the world.
Successfully doing business overseas is not a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Michael McCray, who has worked as an international trade consultant for more than 15 years, said that for U.S. companies to succeed internationally, they must have a plan.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see is when companies don’t think ahead.” he said. “Selling to foreign countries involves many different regulations and costs, and if you’re not prepared you can lose your shirt.”
Chantepie-Kari, who counts McCray as one of her international resources, agreed. “You have to know your target market and you have to do your research,” she said.